Our modern culture revolves around convenience and speed. Where families used to sit around a table together and eat a homemade meal Mom spent all evening cooking, McDonalds drive through or Pizza Hut delivery on the couch in front of the television seem the norm now. However, a growing sect of the American public are now seeing the value and importance of farm fresh foods. Farmers markets, specialty grocers, and produce stands are gaining in popularity and profit as more and more people seek a higher quality of life and health.
This trend has widely been reported on the news, in newspapers, and in magazines. While people argue over the value and wording of organic vs. natural or high fructose corn syrup vs. cane sugar, there is one large area that seems to be overlooked. That is farm raised meats purchased on the hoof, and processed locally. It seems that unless you are a chicken, the media and general public don’t pay much attention to you. Chickens have had their share of the spotlight lately. Between the cage free vs. free range debate and backyard chicken petitions in suburbs, other sources of meat have simply been ignored. While buying fresh produce and healthier eggs are important, I think we should look further into why the public shouldn’t just stop there in their quest for a healthier diet.
The majority of American meat comes from just four meatpacking firms in the United States. Together, they controlled 85% of the market in 2008. These operations can process up to 300 to 400 cattle in one hour. This means when you purchase a pound of hamburger meat at your local grocery store chain, you may actually be consuming a little bit of this cow, and a few bites of that one. So what is the problem with that? This makes it nearly impossible to track down a source of sickness when outbreaks occur. Usually by the time a source can be tracked, the rest of the tainted meat has already been purchased and consumed. Not only that, but one Friday night hamburger grilling may use meat from cattle in several different countries. Many of which do not have the same quality standards as we do.
Americans love meat. We consume more meat per person than any other nation in the world. To meet this great demand, commercial agriculture has developed methods for growing large amounts of meat in a very short time. There are over 15,500 Concentrated Animal Feedlot Operations (CAFO’s) in the United States. According to the EPA, these operations practice "a production process that concentrates large numbers of animals in relatively small and confined places, and that substitutes structures and equipment (for feeding, temperature controls, and manure management) for land and labor.” By definition, animals in these operations are raised in areas that do not produce vegetation. There may be over 1,000 cow and calf pairs, 10,000 young pigs, or 2,500 large hogs. Imagine that, so many animals in a very tight space without EVER seeing one trace of vegetation. No grass, no hay. Just commercially developed feeds whose sole purpose is to grow things quickly. These feeds contain cocktails of chemicals to promote growth, antibiotics to prevent sickness (not treat it), and hormones that increase milk production in dairy cattle or speed growth in hogs, steers and poultry. It’s no wonder our children are reaching puberty at an early age, bacterial infections are becoming immune to antibiotics, and cancer rates are soaring. You are what you eat, and we are eating a lot of garbage!
Hog CAFO. Wikipedia photo.
So what can you do about it? You want what is best for your family. You go to the farmers market to purchase fresh produce and gather eggs from your backyard chickens. Raising chickens is a pretty easy thing to do on a corner lot, but that’s not hardly enough to produce beef, pork, or lamb, is it? So you head to the store for steaks at $8.99 lb and head home to eat your farm fresh veggies with your grocery store meat. The next morning, you prepare breakfast using your backyard eggs, and bacon from the store you purchased for $3.89 lb. Assuming you purchased two pounds of steak and one pound of bacon, you have spent $21.87 plus tax on meat for two meals. Had you purchased this meat straight from a livestock producer, you could have spent just $4.62! Multiple that savings over an entire year and you could save over $5,000 while eating expensive pieces of meat such as steaks, prime rib, lamb chops, and tenderloins.
Wow! Where do I sign up, right? Saving money on meat is much easier to do than you may think. With just a little up-front investment, you can be well on your way to a healthier and cheaper main coarse. The #1 dilemma I usually hear from people who are considering purchasing meat “on the hoof” is storage space. Many only have a regular refrigerator/freezer at home and simply do not have the freezer space for large quantities of meat at one time. Let’s go back to our example though. How many deep freezers could you afford to buy for $5,000? This past year we found ourselves at a shortage for space when we slaughtered a cow and chickens and were growing out a few pigs. So we hit the classified sections of the newspapers and online ads until we found a nice little commercial freezer for only $125. This freezer held half a beef, 10 lbs of chicken, half a pig, and many quart bags full of summer garden veggies.
Now that you have done a little digging and found yourself a deal on a freezer, where do you find your meat? Local classified sections, online sources, or your local co-op and feed stores are all excellent ways to locate a farmer to work with. When you contact a farmer, there are a few questions you should ask before making a deal. Start by asking where their animals are raised. Are they in a pen, raised in stalls, or on pasture? What are they fed? Do they receive additional supplements such as antibiotics and steroids? There is much debate over the health benefits of grass fed or grain fed. Either option will most likely yield better results than the grocery store as long as the farmer raises their stock ethically. Beware of those who give frequent doses of antibiotics as a preventative, any amount of steroids or growth hormones, or who seem hesitant to answer your questions. Find someone who is eager to work with you and answers your questions thoroughly and willingly.
Purchasing meat directly from the farm does involve a little more work than a simple trip to the grocery store. After you have found your farmer to work with, you must decide how much meat you want. Farm raised meat is purchased “on the hoof” by live weight. Most farmers will allow you to buy a whole, half, or quarter. Farmer Joe grows his cattle to 1,200 pounds before taking them to slaughter. He gets $1.25 per pound live weight. The slaughter house charges a $24 per head kill fee and $0.35 per pound. You decide to purchase a quarter beef from him. When Farmer Joe takes his cattle to slaughter, your cow weighs 1,208 pounds. So you will pay Farmer Joe $377.50 (302 x 1.25). Assuming you do not have any special instructions for the slaughter house (such as flavoring, additional processing, or curing where available) you will pay them $117.70 (302 x 0.35 + half the kill fee). The cow dresses out at 56%. That means once it was killed, cleaned, and cut, it weighed 56% of it’s original “on the hoof” weight. For a grand total of $495.20 you will bring home 169.12 pounds of beef. That is $2.93 per pound. While this is relatively the same as the current grocery store price on ground beef, you cannot buy steaks for anywhere near that price!
This same model works for pork as well. We currently pay the same per pound and kill fees on both cows and pigs at our slaughterhouse. This past week we took two hogs to slaughter that weighed 195 pounds and 155 pounds. They dressed out at 62.08% and 62.58%. Much higher than the 50-55% commercial average. We charged $1.10 per pound live weight and sold two halfs to our friends. Their total cost for half a pig was $123.60, and they each brought home 48.5 pounds of pork. That is $2.55 per pound for pork chops, pork tenderloins, seasoned sausage, roasts, ham, and bacon. Can you do that at the grocery store?
Pork Chop and Sausage our feeder pigs for 2011
Our first taste of our very own farm raised pork! Pork Chop made good pork chops.
The pricing is a little different for lamb though. There is no per pound fee on lamb at most slaughterhouses, just a $65 kill fee. So lets take a look at how you can get cheap rack of lamb! Say you have an addiction for rack of lamb and are tired of going to the steak house and paying $23.95 for your dinner. You find a local sheep producer selling lamb for slaughter at $1.50 per pound. At weigh in, the lamb is 75 pounds and dresses out at 52%. You pay a total of $177.50 and bring home 39 pounds. That comes out to $4.55 per pound. So your one rack of lamb dinner could have bought you more than 5 pounds of farm fresh lamb.
As you can see, purchasing directly from a farmer and not from the store can definitely save you money. It is also a wonderful way to support local agriculture and keep the small farmer in business. Not only will you be eating well and healthier, but you will also know exactly where your food came from. And that should give you great peace of mind as your children enjoy their dinner.
In our one year here now we have already grown and slaughtered a bull, two pigs, and several lambs. Our livestock are raised with love, care, and attention. They walk on grass, eat hay, and are fed whole grains with no additives. When you put good things in, good things come out. These animals do not know fear, pain, or suffering. As one of our newest friends has said, “our animals were cared for and loved every single day of their life, and when it came time to process them, they had a great life and one bad day.” If we could all be so lucky!
Two of our pigs in their new pen. Winter garden stocked with beets, turnips, carrots, radishes, peas, and wheat. That’s what you call piggy heaven!
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